I’ll be honest, I feel like this episode fell a bit flat in the second half, but it’s still worth talking about the subtle dualism present in the script. The story is about maturity and immaturity, about letting go and holding on, and as such, has one of the most interesting double-arcs I’ve seen in sci-fi for awhile.
The end plot is about learning to let go, while the main plot is about the Doctor refusing to let go. His parental relationship with Bill parallels the relationship of the man who cannot let his mother die. In both instances, the person being protected does not necessarily want to be protected. Bill spends most of the first half embarrassed about “grandfather,” who is hovering, who seems not to trust her judgment (“I mean, sure the guy was dodgy and all that, but it’s fine, right?”), and won’t take the hint to leave.
And, it’s a damn good thing the Doctor stayed.
The moral here toes the line between over-parenting, and no parenting. For awhile, the plot leads us to believe David Suchet is the father, protecting his daughter, by shutting her away from the world, sacrificing lives so she can live eternally. The cost is, of course, she can never leave her room, decades have passed with her shut up in a tower, she has seen nothing, loved no one, experienced nothing beyond those four walls. This is what you call “smothering” parenting, but different people do it in individualistic ways; there is the parent who literally locks their kid up, who monitors everything they do, and the one who metaphorically hovers throughout their life, pushing them to excel where they failed; living vicariously through their child, and stealing their life in the process. Because in keeping his mother alive, this man stole his mother’s life. He condemned her to a living death.
Yet, we see the reverse psychology in Bill, a college student who wants to be an adult, who longs to be on her own, who needs to make her own decisions… but has the wisdom of a college student. She is naïve, she succumbs to peer pressure and necessity (sure, he’s a freak, but we need a house, right?), and she wants to shove the Doctor out, when she needs him the most (but doesn’t know it yet). How… human. How like a young person, somewhere in between “my parents know everything and are awesome,” and “my parents know nothing and suck,” and “my parents are so wise, and I was stupid not to listen to them before.”
Fortunately for Bill, nobody tells the Doctor to get lost. So he stays. And he saves her life. He has the wisdom she lacks, to pick up on the things she misses. Bill is smart too, don’t get me wrong; she picks up in the flaw in his thinking, and holds the truth of the big reveal, but it’s still an episode about parenting. And in some ways, it might resonate more with the adults in the audience than the kids… the people who face the hardest moment of their lives, in trying to figure out how to let their child be an adult, without total abandonment of being their parent.
On the flip side, Suchet’s character refused to grow up and experience the world, because he held too tight to his mother. He robbed her of a life, but also himself, because he never left home, he never tried anything, never failed, never felt love beyond what she offered him. He stinted himself. And that feeling is familiar too. Some children are ready and willing to face the world. It terrifies others. Some hold on. Some stay home. Some of us like our comfort zone. Some even feel trapped, or responsible for helping, caring for, or even providing for, our parents, due to various circumstances.
And, there is nothing wrong with choosing to stay home, or to accept the hand God has dealt you, provided you are content with it (and presumably, not murdering people to keep your tree-mother alive). Our modern society pushes self-independence, and moving away from your parents, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but former generations often lived with their parents in the same house, as mature, responsible adults. John Adams had three generations in his household; his children benefitted from his wisdom, he got to interact with his grandchildren, and they were all present to take care of him when he got old and needed them as much as they once needed him.
Family is almost a lost art these days, with aged parents regulated to nursing homes rather than their children’s home. I don’t blame anyone for that, nor recommend it, but there is something infinitely valuable about a child interacting with a grandparent, coming to understand aging and loss through their close family connections, and about an older person’s experiences in dealing with the young. The Doctor needs his young friends as much as they need him. They have the innocence, he has the wisdom.
Since this is a faith-based blog, I must throw this out there: one could take this metaphor a step further and illustrate the profound challenge parents have when it comes to the faith mentorship of their children. You can stifle them, force religion down their throat, and rob them of life through rigid fundamentalism. You can abandon them entirely to their own choices as adults, even the dodgy ones that include renting a house from a creepy dude who goes around banging a tuning fork on walls, and then be shocked, horrified, and disappointed when bad choices lead them into spiritual peril. Or you can be the Doctor, and hang in there even when they don’t want you to, but need you.
Hell, you can even do it for your friends.